U.S. commanders are worried that if they had to head off a conflict with Russia, the most powerful military in the world could get stuck in a traffic jam.
Humvees could snarl behind plodding semis on narrow roads as they made their way east across Europe. U.S. tanks could crush rusting bridges too weak to hold their weight. Troops could be held up by officious passport-checkers and stubborn railway companies.
Although many barriers would drop away if there were a declaration of war, the hazy period before a military engagement would present a major problem. NATO has just a skeleton force deployed to its member countries that share a border with Russia. Backup forces would need to traverse hundreds of miles. And the delays — a mixture of bureaucracy, bad planning and decaying infrastructure — could enable Russia to seize NATO territory in the Baltics while U.S. Army planners were still filling out the 17 forms needed to cross Germany and into Poland.
During at least one White House exercise that gamed out a European war with Russia, the logistical stumbles contributed to a NATO loss.
That possibility is tangible for troops who have gotten stuck trying to move between training exercises in Europe — like the U.S. Army squadron that budgeted two weeks last year to get their Stryker armored vehicles back by train to Germany from the Black Sea nation of Georgia. It took four months, leaving the troops sitting in Germany without their rides or weaponry, said Lt. Col. Adam Lackey, the commander of the squadron.
“We have to be able to move as fast or faster than Russia in order to be an effective deterrent,” said Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s former top general in Europe.
Since retiring in December, Hodges has devoted himself to raising the alarm from his perch at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for European Policy Analysis, and he has successfully pushed to get troop-mobility issues on the agenda of a NATO summit in Brussels next month. The United States and NATO, Hodges said, need to be able to “mass enough capability in place so that Russia doesn’t make a terrible miscalculation.”
The original rationale for the NATO alliance was to defend against a potential war with Russia. Western troops regularly practiced for large-scale conflict — and the front line between East and West Germany was just miles away from where more than 200,000 U.S. troops were deployed.
But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Western planners cheerfully threw away the playbooks in the hope of new cooperation with Moscow. For years after NATO’s 2004 expansion into territory that had once been the Soviet Union’s, the alliance had no plans for how to defend its new members.
“We didn’t think about enlargement in those military terms,” said Douglas Lute, a retired three-star U.S. Army general and former U.S. ambassador to NATO, who as a young officer patrolled the internal German border a short trip away from where he was stationed.
Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula provided a jolt. Western planners went to retrieve their Cold War-era playbooks from the dustbin. But their Russia-fighting muscles had atrophied to the point where they could barely flex, and their ability to move across Europe had decayed.
“Transportation is a problem in a very practical way. But it’s a symptom of a bigger problem,” Lute said. “We’re now confronting the image that we had for the last 25 years, of Europe whole, free and at peace. It’s not whole, it’s not free, and it’s not at peace.”